As far as I know, Anselm's argument for the existence of god goes like this:

Let's imagine the most perfect being possible. If we imagine it being most perfect but not existing, it would be even more perfect if it existed, which causes a contradiction. So imagening the most perfect being makes it logically impossible to assume it does not exist.

Let's ignore the often discussed locical problems of this reasoning, and focus instead on the possibility that the same argument could be recycled for a god that is not perfect but perfectly evil.

The argument would then be: I imagine the most evil god I can think of. If you define evil as the ability and inclination to cause harm and suffering, that ability would be obviously greater for an existing than for an non-existing god. Therefore imagening the most evil god would logically force me to assume he exists.

(If you wish, you could replace "evil" with similar attributes like destructive, threatening, scary, cruel, harm-causing, all-hating etc.)

The conclusion obviously is in contradiction with Anselm's.

One could even claim it is in contradiction with itself, since the most destructive or cruel god would already have destroyed the universe, or made our past life full of torture. (Even if some persons might be justified in claiming their lives could not have been more unhappy, I suppose for at least some of us that is not true, which should be enough to exclude the "perfectly" cruel god. Or is he just biding his time?)

A possible objection would be that "perfect" is somehow an intrinsic attribute, but "cruel" or "evil" are only human evaluations, and "destructive" makes only sense in relation to something else. But what about "all-loving" or "all-good", which are often claimed as intrinsic attributes of god (though not in this exact context)?

My question is: Has an argument like this ever been suggested in philosophic literature, and are there arguments for/against it which I did not think of? Especially, is there a way to defend Anselm's argument but refute this one?

  • See St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for discussion. Sep 2, 2016 at 11:20
  • See Leibniz's Philosophy Quod ens perfectissimum existit (1676) "He defines a “perfection” as a “simple quality which is positive and absolute, or, which expresses without any limits whatever it does express.” And with this definition in hand, L is then able to claim that there can be no inconsistency among perfections, since a perfection, in being simple and positive, is unanalyzable and incapable of being enclosed by limits. And, therefore, Leibniz reasons, a subject of all perfections, or an ens perfectissimum, is indeed possible." Sep 2, 2016 at 11:25
  • With this def of perfection : "a simple quality which is positive and absolute" we have to assume that "to be evil" is a positive quality, that is hard to maintain. Sep 2, 2016 at 11:27
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    " destructive, threatening, scary, cruel, harm-causing, all-hating etc." -- take care not to reduce this to the point where you could insert "red". There might be some sense in which an existing red object is redder than an imaginary red object, and that we can imagine a perfectly red object that therefore must exist. But that is not Anselm's sense of the greatest being. Sep 2, 2016 at 14:48
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    By Anselm's logic, since existence is a perfection and an evil being would lack ALL perfections; a perfectly evil being can not exist!! If it did, it would possess the perfection of existence.
    – user4894
    Sep 3, 2016 at 4:10

3 Answers 3


Simply put, no. Or maybe to reword that, doing so is non-trivial much in the way replacing the word "God" with "non existence of God" in Dawkins God Delusion would not produce an argument for God's existence. ( I assume this is so -- and assume why is that presumably his sentences and arguments hinge on "God" bearing non arbitrary signification and working with other ideas he's using). I take the key features to be those below

The basic mistake in what you're suggesting is that you're importing a modern picture of being and perfection into a classical and medieval argument.

On the classical picture, evil is a privation not a thing. (evil does not exist in things).

A privation of what you might ask? A privation of being.

Goodness in turn is correlated to having being. Or to word that differently, anything is good to the extent that it has (in classical language "participates in") being. Thus, on this picture, a serial killer has some intrinsic good that he puts to evil use. Evil in this account is always parasitic on good, because only good properly exists (we can judge that some event that occurred or behavior is evil, and thus we consider something to be evil but the actual existing of things is good).

Anselm's argument depends on God being the being of which no greater can be conceived. Such a being would be perfect in every way -- he tells. Joined to the definition of good such that to be is good. Consequently, Anselm's argument automatically incorporates the perfect being being good because being good is coterminal with having being at all. And if a being is perfect, then for Anselm it would also be perfect in goodness.

In other words, his argument cannot be easily converted to "a perfectly evil God" because perfect and evil are contrary terms within his metaphysics. It's not until the modern era that we begin to have elocutions like "perfectly evil" in a way that we can mean "evil to the ultimate degree" or "epitome of evil."

One could argue that Anselm's argument is question-begging in that the classical terms are pretty well designed for this conclusion or alternately raise the modern objection that existence is not a predicate, but the objections you suggest for the most part wouldn't work because of the meanings in the classical system of "being" and "good."

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    It may be useful to note that St. Anselm's Ontological Argument is about "something than which nothing greater can be conceived". This "definition" does not necessarily involve perfections. Sep 2, 2016 at 11:31
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    @DavidSchwartz if you change the definition of "perfect", etc as used in the argument, it's not really the same argument anymore. It's rather like how all syllogisms have the same structure but different premises.
    – eques
    Sep 2, 2016 at 19:57
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    @DavidSchwartz I'm not really following. If "red" now means "green", then yes it follows that I can drive through a red light. But it doesn't at all follow that under normal circumstances I should drive through a red light. It might be fair to say Anselm is getting a lot of the work done for him by terms that in contemporary English (and contemporary philosophy) don't mean what they meant to him, but that doesn't mean they don't mean what they did to him.
    – virmaior
    Sep 3, 2016 at 1:11
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    @DavidSchwartz but his argument is contingent on the connection between existence and goodness (i.e. that existence is good) thus a perfect being not existing would be more perfect if it existed. You cannot simply substitute "evil" for perfection and get the same argument out. Plus, as pointed out earlier "evil" in Anselm's term is not a perfection but privation. Likewise OP did not give a definition of evil which was actually opposed to the perfection/goodness used in Anselm's argument, but rather one that is more related to power.
    – eques
    Sep 3, 2016 at 14:19
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    Anselm's argument is question-begging in exactly the way that invites table turning. Augustine's characterization of evil as privative directly invokes God, and this view was not universally shared even by scholastics. Since Anselm addresses himself to a "fool" who denies God, the positive/privative distinction goes out the window. But even if agree to keep "absolute positivity" after subtracting the absolute, as Gaunilon, his contemporary, pointed out, his reasoning would still prove existence of a "perfect island", etc. "Classical terms" do not save the argument from reifying summum malum.
    – Conifold
    Sep 4, 2016 at 0:32

My question is: Has an argument like this ever been suggested in philosophic literature

Yes, for example:

and are there arguments for/against it which I did not think of? Especially, is there a way to defend Anselm's argument but refute this one?

People have offered critiques:

  • The content of the third link you give is very interesting, but I hesitate to accept an answer that is mainly links. If you would summarise the arguments, and no other answer is offered, I would probably accept this one.
    – elias_d
    Sep 4, 2016 at 8:43
  • @elias_d, I understand, but I don't know these arguments well enough to write a good summary. Sep 4, 2016 at 15:40
  • @ewert: well said; but this is why answers consisting mainly of links is frowned upon; a good answer tends to use links to buttress an argument or reading... Sep 5, 2016 at 23:59

I can only address the second part of your question, "is there a way to... refute this one."

The first problem comes from a disagreement of what constitutes "existence/exist."
I believe that there are entities/things that exist, even though we are incapable of perceiving them, directly or indirectly.
The second problem also comes from the disagreement of what is "perfection." To me, if something is perfect, there is no way that it can be made more perfect (otherwise it was not perfect to begin with).

1) a perfect being can exist in a different plane/dimension than we exist in.
2) a perfect being cannot become more perfect by "moving" into our plane of existence (becoming perceivable to us).
3) imagining either a benevolent or evil god, does not force you to believe that either one exists. You can choose to believe that one, the other, both, or neither exist!

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